Julio Jones lighting up Falcons' camp

If I had to pick just one player who has stood out most during my training camp tour so far, Atlanta’s Julio Jones would be the easy choice.

In each of the practices, I saw the second-year receiver make several spectacular plays. Let’s keep in mind that he was going up against some big-name cornerbacks in Brent Grimes, Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel. On at least two plays, I saw Jones use athleticism to beat Grimes, who many Falcons will point to when you ask them to name their most athletic player.

This shouldn’t come as a total surprise from Jones, who caught 54 passes for 959 yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie, despite sitting out three full games and missing parts of others.

“In my mind, he missed five and a half games,’’ coach Mike Smith said. “If you extrapolate his numbers out, it’s a monster year. We know he’s going to impact the game.’’

But not everyone thought Jones had a great rookie season. There was a notable exception.

“I did all right,’’ Jones said. “I could have done so much better. I was coming off the foot surgery and I couldn’t really work out in the offseason. My whole core was weak, and coming out here and running full speed and my hamstring kind of gave way.’’

Like all rookies last season, Jones was at a disadvantage because the lockout eliminated offseason programs. Even in the players-only workouts, Jones’ foot limited the time he could spend working with quarterback Matt Ryan.

Jones had a full offseason this time around, and wide receiver is a position where there often is strong improvement from the first year to the second. Throw in the fact that Jones didn’t have any injuries to deal with during the offseason, and we might have the reasons why he’s playing so well in camp.

“I’m out here and stronger than ever,’’ Jones said. “It’s so much easier when you’re not tired. You can come out here and really focus. Everything has just been so much easier this time around.’’

But Jones’ fast start to training camp might not be simply because he’s healthy and a player’s second training camp always is easier than what he goes through as a rookie. Ryan said there’s another important factor at work.

“I think it’s a lot of myself understanding exactly how good he is and having a better feel for his gait, for his speed and for his ability to go up and make some plays when the ball is in the air,’’ Ryan said.

Yep, Ryan said even he didn’t realize last year just how talented Jones is. The quarterback is just grasping that now, which begs the question -- how good can Jones be?

“I think he can be one of the very best in the league, for sure,’’ Ryan said. "His talent is off the charts. His speed and burst and power is as good as anybody’s. I think his understanding of defenses is continuing to improve. I think that, as he gets better with that, there’s no telling how good he can be.’’

I felt like I took a little bit of a leap when I ranked Jones No. 11 in my projections for the top 25 NFC South players in 2012 a few weeks ago, especially when I put him ahead of guys like teammate Roddy White, Tampa Bay’s Vincent Jackson and New Orleans’ Marques Colston. All three of those guys have been around for a while and have put up bigger numbers than Jones did as a rookie.

Again, I was projecting when I did the top 25. After what I saw out of Jones in camp and what I heard from his coaches and teammates, I no longer slightly question if Jones’ ranking was too high. In fact, I’m wondering if I should have placed him in the top 10.